Ontario must keep a watchful eye on new chemicals that are turning up in its lakes, rivers and streams and do more to clean up its contaminated waters, a new government report warned Monday.
The study, which focused on water quality in the environment, said government efforts have helped to reduce pollution in some areas, such as Lake Simcoe, where phosphorus levels have declined.
“Things in some areas are getting better, but we need to do more,” said Wolfgang Schneider, a scientist with the Environment Ministry’s water monitoring branch.
“If you go and look in the fish guide, there’s many fish that you still can’t eat. We need to do more work on cleaning up the Great Lakes – two or three areas have been delisted, there are 14 more to go. So we need to do more.”
The province must also remain vigilant in monitoring new chemicals used in consumer and building products, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, which have been found in “increasing concentrations in the environment,” the report noted.
In some cases, these so-called “emerging” contaminants – which include pharmaceutical drugs, flame retardants and other compounds that are found in furniture and electronics – are replacing traditional pollutants, Schneider said.
The contaminants seem to be leaking in from storm-water sewers and landfills, but more work must be done to figure out where they’re coming from and what impact they may have on the environment, he said.
The study also found:
– Phosphorus levels in many rivers and streams, including some that feed the Great Lakes, still exceed guidelines to prevent nuisance growth of plants and algae.
– Hamilton Harbour on Lake Ontario and Toronto’s Don River are still contamination hot spots in the province, even though cleanup efforts are underway.
– While the effects of climate change on water ecosystems are difficult to measure, there are “clear indications” it is already affecting Ontario’s water resources, such as changing the algae in northern lakes.
– Some lakes in the Sudbury area affected by acid rain have shown improvement, but many are still “severely acidified,” and recovering may be hampered by other factors such as climate change.
– Elevated levels of naturally occurring FLUORIDE were found in 24 of the 173 monitoring wells located west of Guelph in southwestern Ontario.
Environment Minister John Gerretsen said the government is trying to reduce pollution through legislation that would require big companies to track and report their use of toxic chemicals and come up with plans to cut their use of the substances.
Critics complain the bill, introduced two weeks ago, will do little to curb the use of chemicals since it doesn’t force companies to follow through with their plans or even set reduction targets.
The report isn’t giving him second thoughts about toughening up the legislation, Gerretsen said.
“I know that there’s a debate about whether it should be voluntary or mandatory,” he said.
“From the experience of other jurisdictions – that’s New Jersey and Massachusetts – voluntary systems work best if you are truly interested in reducing the amount of toxic substances that companies use.”
The report itself is flawed because it doesn’t address the biggest problems Ontario is facing, such as water shortages and excessive water taking, said NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns.
The government can’t take credit for many of the improvements outlined in the report either, because they’re largely a side-effect of decreased industrial production as the province fell into recession, he added.
“I think (the report) is selective, I think it does point out the good stories,” Tabuns said.
“And I don’t see the action on the part of the government to come to grips with climate change that we’re going to need to protect the Great Lakes.”